Here’s something you may not know about Scotland: you have a strong chance of spotting a unicorn during your time here! Not a real one, of course, but there are recurrent depictions of these majestic, mythical creatures everywhere, from weathervanes and building façades to tombstones and engravings. You can most prominently see the unicorn on Scotland’s coat of arms. This is because the unicorn has been Scotland’s national animal for over 600 years. Let’s find out why and how this came to be.
What do you think of when you hear the word ‘unicorn’? Although I am Scottish born and bred, ‘Scotland’s national animal’ isn’t the first thing that comes to my mind!
As the mother of two young girls growing up in this 21st-century Western culture, my thoughts lean towards the ubiquitous sparkly, unicorn-inspired products: clothing, bedding, toys, colouring books, and party themes.
Did you know that ‘unicorn poop’ ice cream is actually a thing? There’s even an annual National Unicorn Day on the 9th April! Check out #NationalUnicornDay on social media for rainbow unicorn cakes, costumes, balloons and more.
Most of these representations involve friendly, smiling animals that want to have fun with us. However, this current concept of the magical unicorn is a gigantic leap from both the folklore and history of this beautiful, mythical creature.
In her famous Harry Potter series, Scottish author J. K. Rowling beautifully captures the allure and mystery of unicorns through her tales of their elusive nature. She writes of their elusive nature, the dangerous magic of unicorn blood, and unicorn-hair-infused wands.
Scottish author Lindsay Littleson’s fantastic children’s novel Guardians of the Wild Unicorns also strips away the sparkle. It tells a compelling and atmospheric story of the last herd of wild unicorns. These huge, dark, powerful, magical creatures have glistening horns.
These fictional depictions have more in common with historical reports of ‘unicorn sightings’. These began long, long before the unicorn became Scotland’s national animal in the 15th century.
One-horned horse-like beasts appear in early Mesopotamian art around 6,000 years ago. The ancient myths of India and China mention similar creatures.
More than 2,300 years ago, the Greek doctor Ctesias described one-horned wild asses roaming in India that were swift and powerful. Over the centuries, across continents, there have been numerous descriptions of one-horned animals of different sizes and statures. Horn lengths range from one to three metres long.
One of the first pictures of a ‘unicorn’ dates back to the year 545. The Greek traveller Cosmas Indicopleustes drew this image. He had seen bronze figures of four-legged, horse-like creatures with one large horn. As European travellers continued to venture around the globe, they reported second-hand ‘sightings’ from Tibet to the Congo to Florida. Some qualities repeatedly appeared to describe these creatures: wild, fierce, proud, powerful and elusive.
A fascination with unicorns lasted throughout Medieval times. There was a strong association with Jesus Christ due to the alleged mentions of unicorns in the Bible (it has since been debated whether there was a mistranslation). Medieval scholars often viewed Christ as strong, and he appears in many paintings as a unicorn. There were also artistic depictions of unicorns to signify the presence of virgin maidens, especially the Virgin Mary. An oft-repeated legend told that only a noble, virginal maiden could tame a unicorn peacefully.
The unicorn symbolises purity, innocence, masculinity, and power. Unicorns were said to have healing powers; for example, their magical horns could purify poisoned water and heal sickness. Only virgin maidens or Scottish Kings could tame unicorns in Celtic folk tales. In folklore, the chivalrous unicorn and the lion – which would become England’s national animal – were often described as arch-enemies. The two fought an eternal battle to be the king of beasts – the unicorn to rule by harmony and the lion to rule by valour.
If we don’t actually believe in unicorns, then what animals were actually seen during the reported historical ‘sightings’? One of the oldest was the Elasmotherium Sibericum. These humongous ‘Siberian unicorns’ roamed before the Ice Age and at the same time as early humans. Ancestors of the modern-age rhinoceros, these creatures were heavy, big, brown and looked very fierce. Others include the Indian Rhinoceros, the Tibetan Chiru, and the African Okapi.
Of course, we mustn’t forget the narwhal, a type of whale that lives in the Arctic Ocean. The male has a long, spiralling tusk that can grow up to three metres long. Narwhals have also been heavily commercialised in recent years in much the same way as unicorns. It’s very common to find children’s products decorated with sparkly, colourful narwhals. Back in the 1200s, though, narwhal tusks – claimed to be ‘unicorn horns’ – began to be traded across Europe. These became very expensive and desirable over the following centuries.
For example, Denmark’s throne or coronation chair, built in the 1600s, was made out of Norwegian narwhal tusks. One of the reasons these ‘unicorn horns’ became so expensive was that people believed in their healing and protective powers. Cutlery and crockery were made from the horn to protect the person eating from being poisoned, and the horn was ground down into powder to create ‘medicine’. Thus fact and fiction continued to intertwine, and the unicorn’s legendary powers grew stronger in people’s minds.
By the 15th century, most European nobility assumed national animal emblems. These were usually wild and revered animals. Examples include the lion in England, the porcupine in France, and the eagle in Germany. In Scotland, legend tells that the unicorn first appeared on King William I’s coat of arms in the early 12th century. Later, in the early 15th century, King James II adopted the unicorn. Through the 15th and 16th centuries, he and his successors began the process of putting unicorns on everything, including coins, shields, and coats of arms.
By the time of King James VI’s reign – before the Union of the Crowns in 1603 – Scotland’s Royal Coat of Arms was supported by two unicorns, each in chains on either side of the rampant lion. James VI had become king aged just 13 months following the forced abdication of his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, in 1567. He grew up to assume absolute power by 1583 and married Anne of Denmark in 1589. As great-grandson to Margaret Tudor and cousin to Queen Elizabeth I, when she died in 1603, he succeeded to the English throne.
James brought the two kingdoms of England and Scotland together through the Union of the Crowns. James VI of Scotland and I of England was keen to create a complete union of the two kingdoms into a single, unified state. He intended to be King of Great Britain and Ireland. He faced opposition to his ideals of unified laws, parliaments and economies, and it would be another hundred years before the Act of Union created the United Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707. So James VI and I had to make do with symbolic gestures such as naming himself King of Great Britain and creating the old Union Jack flag, which bore the combined crosses of St Andrew and St George. He also made a new Royal Coat of Arms.
Intended as a display of unity between the two countries now bound together by the Union of the Crowns, the English lion replaced one of the unicorns from the pre-1603 Scottish Coat of Arms. This change also included the flag of St George, England’s patron saint. The shield is quartered and, for the version used in Scotland, bears the rampant lion and double tressure flory counterflory of Scotland in the first and fourth quarters. In the second, the three passant guardant lions of England, and in the third, a harp for Ireland.
While it’s often claimed that the chained unicorn in the British coat of arms represents Scotland’s subjugation by England, the unicorns were chained in Scotland’s Royal Coat of Arms long before the Union. The chains show the wild and savage nature of the unicorn, tameable only by the pure, strong and powerful Scottish nobility. Therefore the chained unicorn is a symbol of the power of Scotland’s king, transferred into the British Coat of Arms. Depending on their political leanings, some may say the coat of arms provides a visual representation of the lion and unicorn locked in an eternal battle for dominance.
By the 1800s, most people realised that ‘unicorn horns’ were, in fact, narwhal tusks, and that unicorns as they had been imagined sadly did not exist. However, they remained popular in stories – no longer natural history books – and continued to be portrayed as rare, special, and magical creatures. By the second half of the 20th century, they had taken the fictional form that we know today – white, gentle, intelligent, magical creatures, often with healing powers.
So why does the unicorn remain Scotland’s national animal despite our society having moved on? Most of us no longer believe unicorns are real. Perhaps the answer may lie in the collective nouns for Scotland’s national animal:
‘a blessing of unicorns’
‘a glory of unicorns’
‘a marvel of unicorns’
Scotland – its wild, ancient landscapes, beautiful and dramatic scenery and rich culture – may itself be described as a blessing, a glory and a marvel by all who have the opportunity to visit or live in it. Many mythical unicorns’ attributes still resonate with the Scottish psyche even 600 years after it was adopted as Scotland’s national animal. It’s difficult to think of another real or imagined animal that inspires such depth of feeling and spirit as the unicorn.
Jul 06, 2024
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